Monday, March 21, 2016

#801: I Knew Her Well

(Antonio Pietrangeli, 1965)

Italy was in a very dark place in the 1960s. Despite the hair, the short skirts, the tailored suits and slim ties, the go-go-influenced pop, the exploding construction industry stretching high rises across the country, the Italian soul was corroding in the sun. Just a quick look at the 25 or so Italian films from the 60s that are in the Collection puts the country's attitude front and center: Antonioni's modernist trilogy. Fists in the Pocket. Il Sorpasso. Seduced and Abandoned. Rosi's two political masterpieces, Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City. Dillinger Is Dead. Fellini's work is in a category all its own, but even the king of Italian cinema spent the decade dabbling in sharp socio-political commentary with Juliet of the Spirits, 8 1/2, and the iconic La Dolce Vita. These are angry films attacking both the status quo in Italian culture and the modern "solutions" to traditional social barriers.

Masculinity is particularly skewered across these films, though Antonioni's work in particular puts Vitti and company front and center more often than not. None of these films come close to the almost complete focus on the protagonist in I Knew Her Well, a lesser-known Italian entry from the swinging 60s that was released by Criterion last month. But the shift to issues of femininity and the struggles of beauty and youth does not soften the tone. I Knew Her Well can easily sit next to those other films in the dark Italian 60s, even before the film's upending final moment.

I Knew Her Well is a dark comedy, but for the first half or so it's mostly just comedy. Adriana's early dalliances are harmless enough - a great early joke is when she is filing a woman's nails at a beauty salon where she works and unconsciously shifts to her own nails as the customer looks on in disbelief. Later moments are more profoundly sad if thought about, but can be treated as playful easily enough if you ignore the ending. When Adriana wakes up in the hotel where her one-night stand has abandoned her, she must pay for the night with a bracelet he gave her - which later turns out to have been stolen. It's not funny ha ha, but funny ouch.

I was also reminded of Scorsese's work in the later sequences, particularly the party scene, which has to be the saddest and cruelest tap dancing sequence ever. Pietrangelli places him just at the edge of the table so we don't know if he's going to topple over, further embarrassing himself. The dance is cruel enough though. The scene might be more difficult to watch than most of Salò, but it's reminiscent of the ball-busting sequences in Goodfellas, moments that underscore the poisonous culture that emerge from the social acceptance of the characters' more sinister actions. This sequence is interesting because Adriana is absent from the scene, instead being interviewed as a set up for her own later humiliation.

The parallel is hard to miss, and most of the metaphors in the film are similarly heavy handed. But what makes these moments more complex is the realization at the end of the movie that Adriana's final fate is still shocking despite the preceding two hours of humiliation and empty human interactions. We are so accepting of the portrayal of young and beautiful women as empty vessels bouncing from thrill to thrill that the idea that they could have inner lives (especially in movies) is barely considered until it's too late.

Although I had no serious issues with the portrayal of Adriana in the film, I was somewhat annoyed by the framing of Pietrangelli in the extras as a "director who loved women." I think it's great that he was especially concerned with the female experience, and this is a very sensitive and complex take on a woman's psychology that never feels like it's pretending to be coming from any place other than the male gaze - the title even gives it away, explaining the misguided perception of the omniscient man certain he's figured Adriana out right until the final moment when she takes over and we finally get a POV. But I can't help but think it comes across as "surely a woman herself couldn't make a movie, so it's a good thing we have men who are sensitive to women." Women and people of color are not horses or super heroes or children or dead historical figures - they can make movies about themselves if given the opportunity. I Knew Her Well shouldn't be at fault for that - Pietrangelli never pretends he is inside Adriana's mind, and his purpose is often precisely the opposite of what can be achieved by gaining insight into characters that can only come from relatable personal experience. But I think it's important to note what we've missed all these years and wonder what a movie about this same character could have been like if it was made by a woman, particularly in Italy.

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